Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn: Papa Met His Match

Ernest Hemingway deliberately cultivated his notoriously macho image.  Yet, he somehow he found four women willing to marry him at various points of his life.  That was a lot of optimism, on everyone’s part.  Though she had the shortest tenure as a “Mrs. Hemingway,” war correspondent Martha Gellhorn was the most notable.  Matching and at times surpassing his feats of war zone journalistic daring, Gellhorn fired his passion and inspired his professional respect and jealousy.  Their tempestuous relationship is dramatized in Philip Kaufman’s HBO Film Hemingway & Gellhorn (trailer here) now currently airing on the network.

When ambitious young magazine writer Martha Gellhorn first meets the funky, grungy Hemingway in a Key West bar, they can barely resist tearing the clothes off each other.  The fact that he is married hardly matters to either of them.  However, their animal attraction will have to briefly wait until they reunite covering the Spanish Civil War, at the behest of ardent Spanish Republican supporter John Dos Passos.

Working with Dutch Communist documentarian-propagandist Joris Ivens, Hemingway and Dos Passos film The Spanish Earth (with Gellhorn tagging along), for the purpose of rallying American audiences to the Republican cause.  Frankly, it is considerable more compelling to watch their run-and-gun shooting process in H&G than the historical documentary itself.  That adrenaline also fuels the war reporters’ torrid affair.

Just like Hemingway and Gellhorn’s relationship, the film really clicks during their time together in Spain.  Viewers are served a liberal helping of Nationalist atrocities, but the portrayal of the Soviet forces is also refreshingly unvarnished, particularly with respects to fatal purging of heroic Loyalist soldier Paco Zarra, a stand-in for Dos Passos’ doomed friend José Robles.  While the literary power couple is shown fawning over Chou En-lai and sneering at the gauche Chiangs in China, Gellhorn also reports from Finland, unequivocally siding with the Finns against the Soviet invaders.

Unfortunately, the film loses vitality with the aging Hemingway, sliding into the long denouement of his dubious u-boat chasing Cuban years and sad final days in Idaho.  By the time America enters WWII, screenwriters Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner clearly suggest Gellhorn was more of a man than Hemingway.  Of course, this is a common problem with bio-pics.  To be accurate, they can almost never end with the good stuff.

Regardless of his character arc, Clive Owen totally goes for broke as Hemingway.  One of the few actors working today who can come across as both manly and literate, he bellows and carouses with relish.  It is a larger than life performance, bordering on camp, yet he is still able to convey Hemingway’s inner demons and nagging self-doubts.  He also manages to dial it down periodically for some saucy Tracy-and-Hepburn bantering with Nicole Kidman’s Gellhorn.  Likewise, Kidman is on a very short list of actresses who can play smart, sophisticated, and alluring, simultaneously.  In fact, she could be channeling Hepburn and the Rosalind Russell of His Girl Friday as the fast-talking, khaki-wearing journalist crusading against injustice, which is frankly pretty cool.

In addition to the strong chemistry between the leads, H&G boasts a strong supporting ensemble.  David Strathairn is particularly engaging as the disillusioned idealist, Dos Passos, serving as a subtle corrective to Hemingway’s ethical malleability.  Metallica’s Lars Ulrich adds notable color as Ivens, while Tony Shaloub conveys a sense of both the menace and tragedy of the Stalinist true believer Mikhal Koltsov, who is considered to be the source for the Karkov character in For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Again, the most inspired work comes during or prior to the Spanish Civil War sequences.

Frequently approximating the look of black-and-white news reels and Ivens’ documentary footage, H&G is highly cinematic (getting a vital assist from cinematographer Rogier Stoffers).  Kaufman is a big canvas filmmaker, with sufficient artistic stature to merit a recent MoMA film retrospective—a high honor indeed.  While steamier and gossipier than The Right Stuff, it is downright staid compared to his Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An appropriately messy film sprawling all over the place, H&G is rather rowdily entertaining, capturing good deal more historical insight than one would expect.  Definitely recommended for those who appreciate the Hemingway oeuvre and persona (as well admirers of Gellhorn or Dos Passos), Hemingway & Gellhorn airs again on HBO June 2nd, 7th, 10th, 11th, 15th, and 19th and on HBO2 on June 4th, 6th, 12th, 17th, 21st, 25th, and 30th.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

DWF ’12: Fuzz Track City

It is time to kick it analog style with a detective who does not own a cell phone.  Frankly, Murphy Dunn does not care how people take his throw back style.  He just isn’t in a customer service frame of mind throughout Steve Hicks’ Fuzz Track City (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Dances with Films.

Donning his leather jacket amid the Southern California summer, Dunn is suffering from serious “June gloom.”  Still grieving his late mentor-partner “Shakey,” Dunn has also recently separated from his suddenly pregnant wife, Al Jackson.  Dunn’s veneration of the old school Shakey has him stuck in the 1970’s, but in way, that makes him the perfect gumshoe to track down a mysterious 45 single.  It is not exactly a case he formerly accepts.  However, it is apparently intertwined with the disappearance of his former high school guidance counselor’s son.  In retrospect, Dawn Lockwood might not have given Dunn the best counseling, but he still has a school boy crush on her.

Just knowing one-hit-wonder Zack Lee and his British New Wave thugs are desperate to find the privately pressed garage rock McGuffin is enough to give most of the game away.  Nonetheless, FTC’s retro vinyl love is pretty cool, as are the frequent nods to 1970’s era action movies.  Dunn clearly owes a debt to “The Dude,” but he is more of a loser than a slacker, which at least makes him a fairly distinctive protagonist.

Indeed, Todd Robert Anderson is rather engaging as the shaggy dog detective, playing the born-loser part scrupulously straight.  He also serves as the film’s heart, convincingly pining for Jackson, mourning Shakey, and sort of-kind of taking not-as-tough-as-she-thinks-she-is aspiring musician waitress Jo under his wing.  It is also nice to see Dee “E.T., Cujo” Wallace [formerly Stone] as Dunn’s mature fantasy client.

Frankly, FTC is not exactly a love letter to Los Angeles, but it digs rock and has a fair handle on the record collector’s mindset.  The mystery might not be mysterious, but it moves along at a breezy tempo, sprinkling in a fair number of laughs along the way.  Admittedly, it is not a great movie, but it is an enjoyable one.  It deserves a look-see from the right crowd when it screens next Monday (6/4) as part of the 2012 edition of Dances with Films, appropriately enough in Hollywood.

Wallander: the Revenge—the Detective Mellowed with Age

Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander just turned sixty-two—and they were a hard 62.  Though still not exactly a people person, the detective is relatively at peace with himself now and even has close friends on the force to get hammered with.  Inconveniently, a series of spectacular crimes will soon interrupt their revelry in Wallander: The Revenge (series trailer here), the first episode of the second season of the Swedish television adaptation of Henning Mankell’s bestselling crime series, which opens theatrically in New York this Friday (with the entire second season already available on VOD).

Wallander is good at his job, but he is not a counter-terrorism expert.  Unfortunately, when the sub-station powering Ystad is destroying by a sophisticated set of explosives, it appears he has such a situation on his hands.  To make matters worse, the gallery owner hosting a controversial exhibit of Muhammad portraits is viciously murdered under the cover of the resulting darkness.  Is the assassination related to the terrorism attack?  The national authorities assume so, but investigating will be difficult until power is restored to the Malmö exurb.  The rash of exploding cars does not help either.

Given the big picture themes of terrorism and multicultural tension, Revenge, competently helmed by Charlotte Brändström, is reasonable cinematic for series television (clocking in at ninety minutes, much like most installments of Masterpiece Mystery).  In fact, it also premiered in Swedish cinemas before the second season subsequently bowed on TV.  However, as a whodunit, it is not particularly baffling.  Viewers are clearly primed for resolution absolving all suspicious terrorist types in favor of a more politically correct villain.  Indeed, Revenge largely delivers accordingly.  (However, the precise culpability for each crime is ultimately rather vaguely defined—a bit of a shortcoming for a straightforward procedural.)

Wallander will be familiar to many American mystery fans from Kenneth Branagh’s Emmy winning turn as the agonizing detective on the PBS-BBC English language series.  Actually one of three Swedish actors to play the part, Krister Henriksson is decidedly jowlier and less angst-ridden than Branagh.  Over time, that probably makes him a more welcome home viewing staple.  Nonetheless, he has some genre-fan pleasing moments of prickly intensity in Revenge.

American Swedish mystery enthusiasts will also enjoy seeing Lena Endre, recognizable as Michael Nyqvist’s co-editor and on-and-off lover in the Dragon Tattoo franchise, appearing here as Wallander’s potential romantic interest, state prosecutor Katarina Ahlsell.  In Revenge, they show the promising stirrings of some smart, mature chemistry.

It is fun to watch Henriksson’s Wallander go about his police business, when not walking his beloved dog or growling at his inter-agency colleagues.  However, Revenge’s is a wee bit polemical, at the expense of the story’s credibility.  Still, the character is an established international warhorse, so it is sort of reassuring to see him return in a more contented frame of mind.  For Wallander/Mankell diehards, it opens this Friday (6/1) in New York at the Cinema Village and is available with the rest of the second season of Wallander on VOD and DVD.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

U.N. Me: It’s Worse than You Think

The bad news is many United Nations officials are actively working to protect institutionalized injustice and corruption.  The good news is they all clock out at 5:00 on the dot.  Taking a page out of the Michael Moore playbook (and a few of his crew) Ami Horowitz and Matthew Groff rake the muck of Turtle Bay in U.N. Me (trailer here), a simultaneously hilarious and infuriating documentary opening this Friday in New York.

Unlike his pseudo-role model, gonzo-host Horowitz never ambushes receptionists or security guards.  A witty and seemingly guileless screen presence, he is out to confront the UN elite with the crimes committed under their watch.  Crime is indeed the right term, particularly in the first segment focusing on the sexual assaults perpetrated by so-called “UN peacekeepers.”   Traveling to the Côte d’Ivoire, the gauche Horowitz even has the temerity to ask the commander of the UN peacekeeping mission about an incident in which his forces fired on unarmed protestors.  It took a long time to snag that on-camera interview, but it sure doesn’t last long.

Horowitz and Groff revisit many of the organization’s greatest hits, like Oil for Food and the genocide in Rwanda, but each time it is clear the unofficial motto for UN should be “it’s worse than you think.”  As bad as the UN and Kofi Annan look in Roger Spottiswoode’s Shake Hands with the Devil, Horowitz and Groff make it clear then Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is even more culpable, having deliberately misled the Security Council about the situation on the ground in Rwanada and previously brokering a major arms sales to the Hutu-dominated government while still with the Egyptian Foreign Affairs ministry.

U.N. Me is packed with jaw-dropping factoids, like eighty percent of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection budget is spent on Canada, Germany, and Japan.  As for Iran, the agency’s former director general Mohamed ElBaradei tells Horowitz there is no reason to be concerned about their nuclear program.  Feel safer now?

Perhaps to avoid the temptation to dismiss the film as another salvo in the Israeli-“Palestinian” controversy, Horowitz and Groff make only passing mention of the notoriously disproportionate censure leveled at Israel and only Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy.  As a result, potential critics are forced to deal with the inconvenient realities of UN policy with respects to Darfur.  It is not pretty.  Just ask Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, who was rather rudely received by the Human Rights Council when she presented her honest findings.  Horowitz and Groff do exactly that, but they also try to follow-up with those same genocide-abetting diplomats.

The problems U.N. Me exposes are not merely anecdotal, but systemic and profound.  It is important to remember this jaw-dropping malfeasance is underwritten by our tax dollars.  Perhaps it is time to reconsider membership in an organization that makes no distinctions between free democracies and despotic regimes.   It is also clear the legacy media has been derelict in its duties covering the UN’s global scandals. 

One hopes the documentary will be screened for the current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is not directly implicated in the film, beyond clearly not displaying any urgency addressing the organization’s persistent graft and dysfunction.  It moves along at a brisk pace, so any bureaucrat ought to be able to follow it, but do not hold your breath.  Nonetheless, the dismayingly funny U.N. Me highly recommended for anyone interested in the current state of the world.  It opens this Friday (6/1) in select theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire here in New York.

DWF ’12: Crocodile in the Yangtze

Years from now, when historians ask who lost China, the answer might be ebay.  After dominating the American online auction market through scrappy tenacity, they approached the Chinese market like a hidebound IBM.  Jack Ma was the man who laughed all the way to the bank.  The unlikely story of Ma’s dominance of Chinese e-commerce is told by westerner who witnessed it from the inside.  Ma’s former PR honcho Porter Erisman documents the rise of the Chinese internet powerhouse Alibaba in the metaphorically titled Crocodile in the Yangtze, which screens this Saturday as part of the 2012 edition of Dances with Films.

In 1995 English teacher Jack Ma did not look like a prospective billionaire, but he got the internet before just about anyone in China.  In fact, his first venture, China Pages, was too early.  He was still far ahead of the curve when he started his B2B site, Alibaba, with seventeen employees in his apartment.  American expat Erisman signed on just as China’s legion of small manufactures started embracing its potential.  However, the internet bubble threatened to engulf the momentum Ma had generated.  Like so many short-lived start-ups, Alibaba boasted more users and publicity than revenue.  Actually, it did not have any revenue.

As it happened, in contrast to its ill-fated contemporaries, Alibaba offered a service that customers were willing to pay for.  Much to the surprise of many analysts, Ma’s company survived and ultimately thrived.  Yet, in proper visionary fashion, Ma anticipated a coming war with ebay.  Strangely though, the American company ignored the lessons of its own success, banking on the benefits of integration into its global platform, while ignoring the specifics of the local market.  This would be a hundred million dollar mistake, several times over.

On one hand, Crocodile is a quite invigorating underdog business success story.  Despite facing several existential crises, Alibaba and its Taobao person-to-person e-marketplace carried the day.  Yet, there is a darker side to the tale Erisman deals with rather perfunctorily.  As part of its grand strategy, Alibaba aligned itself with Yahoo China, just as the search engine was taking heat for ratting out an independent journalist to the Communist regime.  Erisman shows footage of Ma the good soldier parroting the Yahoo company line to the effect that they might not like local laws, but they must obey them nonetheless.  Yet, this begs the obvious but unasked question: does Ma really dislike these laws and would he advocate liberalizing them?  If so, what would an enormously wealthy individual such as himself be willing to do within the system towards that end?

Here and there, Erisman extols the internet as an instrument of openness and information dissemination in the formerly closed China, which is true to an extent, but ignores the great lengths the Chinese government has gone to monitor, censor, and block the free flow of the internet.  One also wonders about the privacy of the Facebook-like innovations that helped put Taobao over the top.

Clearly, Erisman is too close to Ma to push him on any political questions, but he is unusually lucky to have such a wealth of video records of company events, including that fateful day one in Ma’s apartment.  Frankly, the drive to document Alibaba, including even brainstorming sessions between Erisman and his boss, might strike some viewers as a bit odd.  Yet, they clearly provide a tenor of the times, both good and bad, during each stage of the company’s development.  As a result, the understandable reliance on videotaped corporate history is not always particularly cinematic, but it certainly gives the film a you-are-there vibe.

There are a ton of objects lessons in Crocodile, regardless whether you consider Ma a charismatic business genius or a sell out to the oppressive power structure (hearing the local Communist Party boss laud him as an exemplary “entrepreneur” possibly supports either conclusion).  Frankly, every e-commerce enterprise should study it frame by frame.  After all, Alibaba’s IPO lived up to expectations, unlike the fizzle of certain social network.  Highly topical and instructive, if frustratingly cautious, Crocodile is well worth seeing this Saturday morning (6/2) when it screens as a selection of this year’s Dances with Films, in Hollywood, USA.

Monday, May 28, 2012

For Greater Glory: the Fight for Religious Liberty in Mexico

It could be said socialist “President” Plutarco Calles made Mexico a holier place.  He was ultimately responsible for the canonization of twenty-five Mexican saints, by martyring them during the Christero War.  His brutal “anti-clerical” laws inspired a heroic rebellion, dramatized in Dean Wright’s For Greater Glory (trailer here), which would have been thematically appropriate for Memorial Day weekend but opens this Friday across the country instead.

General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde does not believe in the Catholic faith, but in religious liberty—perhaps enough to even die for it.  He has also been offered an unusually high salary to take command of the hardscrabble Christero forces.  Before his appointment, the Christero rebels had won embarrassing victories, but they were not considered a serious threat to the Calles regime.  However, Gorostieta is a man to be reckoned with.

Calles is a duly elected dictator, who razes churches and executes foreign born priests like the kindly Father Christopher, played by Peter O’Toole (who must enjoy the irony of such a pious role, given his notoriously checkered private life).  Glory is not shy about depicting the violent oppression meted out by the Calles forces, most notably with their treatment of José Luis Sánchez del Río, the captured mascot of Gorostieta’s army, who joined the Christeros after witnessing Father Christopher’s state-sanctioned murder.  However, the film does not just wave the bloody shirt.  Christeros like the legendary “El Catorce” take the battle to the Federales good and hard, heedless of their superior numbers, in several satisfying scenes of vintage warfighting.

Of course, Glory is a prime example of one of the fundamental laws of cinema: don’t mess with Andy Garcia.  Perfectly cast as Gorostieta, he captures both the swagger and the gravitas of the principled man of action.  It is easy to see why men would follow him into battle.  Just as Garcia looks the part of Gorostieta, Ruben Blades is the near spitting image of Calles, aptly conveying his arrogance and ruthlessness. 

Santiago Cabrera is also quite a riveting presence as Father Vega, a priest turned guerrilla general, while young Mauricio Kuri is surprisingly poised as Sánchez del Río.  It is a strong and accomplished cast, even featuring Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Morena (for Maria Full of Grace) as Christero fund-raiser Adriana.  Though a bit of an undercooked role, she projects a strong presence nonetheless.  However, Eva Longoria seems to be dropped into the film merely for decorative effect as Gorostieta’s wife, Tulita.  Arguably, the most intriguing supporting turn comes from the ever-reliable Bruce Greenwood as American Ambassador Dwight Morrow, sent to broker a deal to keep the petroleum flowing, duly fulfilling his brief despite the twinges of his conscience.

Indeed, Glory shines a spotlight on some conveniently overlooked Mexican and American history.  Had Coolidge been more Reaganite and backed the Christeros, the Twentieth Century might have been much more prosperous and pleasant for Mexico.  Instead, Calles’s PRI party would dominate Mexico for decades, whereas Calles himself briefly took refuge in America during a period of involuntary exile, where he fell in with the marginalized fascist movement (maybe he even met Morrow’s future son-in-law, Charles Lindbergh).  Frankly, he ought to be regarded as one of history’s worst despots.

Granted, Glory is not exactly the most nuanced film, but there is not a lot of room for subtlety in such a brazen episode of religious persecution.  Though director Dean Wright’s background is in special effects, he shows a strong aptitude for old school cavalry and artillery battles.  (The English language dialogue is a bit of a misstep though, in contrast to the greater authenticity subtitled Spanish would have lent the film.)  Pretty stirring stuff, For Greater Glory is earnestly recommended for everyone concerned about state encroachments on religious liberty, but still enjoys a sweeping historical tragedy.  It opens nationwide this Friday (6/1), including the AMC Empire and Village 7 theaters in New York.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

DWF ’12: Attack of the Bat Monsters

Technically, there is only one bat monster in Francis Gordon’s latest B-movie, but it would hardly be the first time the zero-budget mogul delivered slightly less than promised.  It will certainly attack though, rest assured.  By hook or by crook, his cast and crew will pound out his next drive-in programmer in Attack of the Bats (trailer here), Graham Kelly Greene’s affectionate love letter to campy late 1950’s and early 1960’s monster movie-making, an alumni selection returning to officially open the 2012 Dances with Films this Thursday.

Attack is not about Roger Corman per se, but it would not have been made without his example.  Gordon is definitely a grindhouse showman in the Corman mold.  He is convinced he can fix anything in the editing room as long as they follow his cardinal rule: “when the monster’s dead, the movie is over.”  Paralleling the genesis of Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, Gordon wrapped production on his latest film early, but he still has three paid-up days in the southern California rock quarry he does not intend to waste. 

Suddenly, AD Chuck Grayson is rushing about lining up a screenwriter (the least important part), a pseudo-star, and a new monster (that would be the biggie).  The beatnik poet Bobby Barnstone and his Barnstone method of Benzedrine-fueled stream-of-consciousness screenwriting looks like the best bet for generating fast pages.  They don’t have to be good after all.  Larry “The Cat Creature” Meeker, Jr. seems to have fallen on hard enough times he would consider a Francis Gordon movie and a former creature making colleague has just been fired by a major studio.  However, he still harbors bad feelings over The Snake Woman, a Gordon production so notorious, the mere mention of the title sucks the air out of rooms.

All the Corman motifs are present and accounted for, including spaced-out beatniks, a jazzy soundtrack, and a ridiculously cheesy monster.  What sets Attack apart from thematically similar B-movie pastiches is Greene’s confidence in the behind-the-scenes story.  There will be no real life monsters or aliens invading their set, just the union goon extras from a studio gladiator movie sent to run the crew out of the quarry ahead of schedule.

Attack had its world premiere at DWF back in 2000.  Frankly, the fact that the film has yet to develop its own cult following is downright mystifying, because it really delivers the goods.  Greene knows the Corman lore inside-out and his cast of not exactly household names is way funnier than you would expect.  There is also a real edge to his dialogue, as when Gordon indignantly defends his honor by declaring he always pays his taxes and pays-off his unions.  Indeed, what more could one ask of a good Hollywood citizen?

There are some hilarious supporting assists here, particularly Robert Bassetti as Barnstone and Douglas Taylor as Meeker, Jr.  Fred Ballard is also pitch-perfect as the prickly Gordon, while Michael Dalmon gamely holds the madness together as the put-upon Grayson.

Without question, Attack is generously stocked with goofy humor, but it can also be quite sly.  Yet, there is a real heart beneath the bedlam that cares about its characters, precisely because on some level they also care about the B-movies they are churning out, despite being fully aware of their schlockiness.  A completely satisfying, all-around good show, Attack of the Bat Monsters is ripe for re/discovery when it opens this year’s Dances with Films this coming Thursday night (5/31) in Hollywood, USA.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

SIFF ’12: Unit 7

You do not typically find nacro-gangsterism exhibits at a World’s Fair.  The Seville civic authorities aim to keep it that way.  A special four cop unit will be turned loose with decidedly result-oriented rules of engagement in Alberto Rodriguez’s Unit 7 (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival, following its earlier international premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Ángel is an ambitious cop, but asthma (a biographical detail that may or may not loom large later in the film) has cut short his hopes of career advancement.  Instead, he is assigned to Unit 7, a small autonomous squad charged with cleaning up Seville in the years leading up to the 1992 World Expo.  It is not the sort of stint that looks good on a resume, but it is a good gig for snagging a spare kilo here and there.  As the years pass, Ángel’s unit becomes a criminal outfit onto itself, but they remain steadfast taking the fight to Seville’s hardcore bad guys.

Nobody in the unit is fiercer than the devout Rafael.  The term tightly wound does not even come close to describing him.  However, when he tries to reform and possible strike up a relationship with Lucía, an attractive junkie, he starts to mellow.  It also opens up new vulnerabilities in the Spanish Dirty Harry.  Indeed, a major reckoning is clearly in the wind.

As a cop drama, Unit 7 is basically standard issue stuff.  The action sequences are rather middling and the absence of a defining villain is a drawback.  In fact, despite its grit and cynicism, the film is surprisingly sluggish at times.  Still, Unit 7 has two things going for it: the cinematic march of time illustrated by the yearly stages of the World Expo construction and the powerhouse work of Antonio de la Torre as Rafael.  While not a showy performance, he seethes like a monster.

In contrast, Mario Casas plays Ángel, the compromised idealist, like a petulant frat boy.  Rounding out the unit, Joaquín Núñez’s Mateo is more like a schlubby Cheers patron than a crooked vigilante cop, while José Manuel Poga does not even get his own shtick as the bland Miguel.  However, Lucía Guerrero is convincingly all kinds of trouble as her addict namesake.

On paper, Unit 7 looks like a highly promising if not strikingly original concept.  Yet, it never fully comes together.  There is some stylishly work from cinematographer Alex Catalán, a show-stopping turn from de la Torre, and a fair number of memorable scenes scattered throughout the film, but there are few surprises as to where it is all headed.  An okay time killer for those hooked on cop movies, but nothing more, Unit 7 screens June 8th and 9th during the 2012 SIFF, hard on the heels of its fairly well received debut at Tribeca.

Friday, May 25, 2012

SIFF ’12: The Last Man on Earth

It turns out there really are little grey aliens out there.  The X-Files had them perfectly pegged physically, but the rest of their nature has yet to be determined.  They are coming though.  A motley assortment of Italians await their anticipated arrival during the planet’s final pre-contact days in Gian Alfonso Pacinotti’s deceptively spoilerishly titled The Last Man on Earth (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival.

Luca Bertacci is a miserable man leading a depressing life.  The anti-social bingo parlor waiter has issues with women, but he is not too fond of men either.  Perhaps logically, his only friend (strictly platonic) is a transvestite prostitute.  Still, there are understandable reasons for his emotional deep freeze.  Despite his long nurtured resentments, he finds himself pining for Anna Luini, a pretty neighbor across the street.

Unlike the rest of the world, Bertacci tries not to think about the aliens, so he is rather surprised to find his elderly father cohabitating with an early arriver.  It seems to be a chaste relationship, but her presence invigorates the old man.  Bertacci even starts talking to Luini.  It isn’t pretty, but it is a beginning.  Unfortunately, mistakes in their private lives might have rather cosmic implications as first contact approaches.

Bertacci is hardly a typical sci-fi action protagonist.  Rather than I Am Legend, think of him more like the guy in the “if you were the last man on Earth” expression.  Still, the aliens really are coming, which serves as an amusing Rorschach for various characters’ neuroses.  During the opening credits, one radio talk show caller even expresses concern for the impact on small market football teams.  In a way, Last is like two (or perhaps one and a half) decidedly oddball love stories, connected by unrestrained existential dread.

Hardly kid-friendly space opera, Last lurches into some pretty ominous places, but Gabriele Spinelli solidly anchors it all as Bertacci.  While sympathetic, there is clearly something off about the waiter that is never fixed with a neat psychological contrivance.  Frankly, it is pretty engrossing just watching the dysfunctional gears turning in his head.  Though she only has one really heavy scene, Anna Bellato is a dynamic presence as her namesake, while the makeup obscured Sara Rosa Losilla’s weirdly awkward body language perfectly suits the alien.

A distinctive work of cerebral social science fiction, Last would make a good double feature with Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, which also screens at SIFF this year.  Of course, Pacinotti’s film would definitely be the darker half.  Yet, the comic artist (a.k.a. Gipi) turned director never allows the angst to overwhelm the story.  Recommended for discerning genre fans, Last Man on Earth screens today (5/25), Monday (5/28), and Thursday (5/31) during SIFF.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

ContemporAsian: The Woman in the Septic Tank

Desperately poor, Mila is about to sell one of her seven children to a sexual predator.  Relax, it is only a movie.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t even really happening in the film either, just the film-within-the-film, if it ever gets made.  The poverty fetishism of international festival films gets a healthy skewering in Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank (trailer here), which is currently screening at MoMA as part of their continuing ContemporAsian film series.

Mila is in for a host of degradations, but we will only see a few scenes of her painful life over and over, as first-time director Rainer, his producer Bingbong, and their PA Jocelyn try to best calibrate the privation porn for politically correct film festival audiences.  Whenever possible, they crank up the transgressiveness and even contemplate turning it into a musical (bringing to mind a certain Lebanese Oscar wannabe). 

Of course, the key will be casting a big star as Mila to secure the financing.  As luck would have it, real life comic superstar Eugene Domingo is looking for a prestige project.  There will have to be a meeting of the minds on certain creative decisions first though, including which of Domingo’s three forms of [over]-acting Rainer would prefer she employ for the film.

Displaying an unusually sporting sense of humor, Domingo plays herself and really lets herself have it.  It is definitely a larger than life diva turn, but it aptly serves the film’s sharp satire.  The indie filmmakers are certainly on the receiving end of plenty of jokes as well, particularly as they wax ghoulishly rhapsodic about the cinematic potential of the teeming slum locations, until reality rudely intrudes.

Kean Cipriano and JM de Guzman are a bit colorless as Rainer and Bingbong, respectively, largely functioning as straightmen to Domingo and the overriding concept.  However, Cai Cortez adds a bit of spark to the film as their not yet completely disillusioned assistant.

If there is one thing indie films do well it would be taking themselves too seriously.  That is why Septic is such a welcome corrective.  Screenwriter Chris Martinez (who previously directed Domingo in the popular tearjerker 100) dishes out some rather bold comedy.  Ironically, audiences at MoMA might actually pick up on a few more jokes than Filipino viewers, because the films Septic sends up are produced almost entirely for foreign venues (like MoMA).

Although diminishing returns start to set in, the film sure signs off with a happy ending.  It might be somewhat small in scope, but it is wickedly pointed.  Heartily recommended for cineastes who will both get and appreciate the humor, The Woman in the Septic Tank runs through Monday (5/28) at MoMA.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st

The good thing about being a self-destructive junkie is that you never have to take responsibility.  A case in point, one drug addict will blame everyone but himself for the hash he made of his life in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Trier kicks off the film with a voice-over montage of the fond memories and lasting friendships various narrators forged in the Norwegian capital.  Anders is not one of them.  He is a user who has run out of people to use.  Though his release from rehab is imminent, he nonetheless flirts with suicide in an opening scene.  Instead, he sticks to the plan formulated for him, making his first day trip return to Oslo for an interview with a literary magazine.  Once a talented writer, Anders drops some promising soundbites, but when the discussion predictably turns to the gaps in his resume, he loses his cool.

From this point on, Anders goes off his counselor’s script, catching up with old friends and revisiting the scenes of his not-so past life.  Given his reputation, nobody is very happy to see him, except the married Thomas, perhaps his one remaining true friend.  Needless to say, Anders is not looking to spread a lot of joy as he falls back into old habits, while repeatedly leaving thinly veiled cry-for-help messages for an ever-so unfortunate ex-girlfriend.

The overriding point of OA31 is that it is all entirely Andres’ fault.  Trier presents Oslo as a beautiful city of just the right size—big enough to be cosmopolitan, but small enough to foster close, meaningful relationships.  All around him, Anders observes evidence of everyday people making the sort of connections he chose to spurn.

Even though the back of his head is Trier’s preferred focal point through the film, Anders Danielsen Lie is an intense screen presence as his namesake.  There is nothing more pathetic than the formerly cool and he projects that surly misery perfectly.  There are also some nice supporting turns fleshing out the film, but they all enter and exit quite quickly.  Yet, Anders Borchgrevink supplies what might be the film’s defining moment in one of its briefest roles.  Appearing as Øystein, a bitter acquaintance of Anders, he reminds the junkie character and the audience of his problematic nature, lest we start to fall for his appeals for pity.

In a sense, the naturalistic virtues of OA31 limit its dramatic effectiveness.  So resolute is Trier in denying Anders the sympathy he craves, his ultimate tragedy leaves viewers cold.  Nonetheless, the film simultaneously serves as an appealing valentine to the clean and sparkling title city, which is quite an unusual stylistic twofer to pull off.  An appropriately chilly Nordic morality tale, well executed in the uncomfortably intimate Cassavetes tradition, Oslo August 31st is recommended for sophisticated cineastes when it opens this Friday (5/25) at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SIFF ’12: Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings

Remington is cursed, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  A fortune-telling drag queen cast a spell on him that will change his orientation when he reaches maturity (or something close to that)—again not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It just comes at a bad time.  Remington has just met the girl of his dreams and was even making a bit of headway.  Further complicating matters, there happens to be a serial killer targeting the town’s gay population in Jade Castro’s mash-up Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival.

Evidently, Zombadings is a sort of Tagalog conjunction for gay zombie.  Don’t worry about them, they won’t show up for a while.  The serial killer is more pressing.  Since the economy of Remington’s provincial town seems to be built around hair salons, the killer has sparked widespread panic.  His father’s son, Remington has never been particularly sensitive about the feelings of his gay neighbors.  In fact, it was his childhood taunts that earned him the curse that starts manifesting after he meets the ridiculously cute Hannah.

Actually, it is Remington’s new flamboyant side that charms Hannah’s mom.  Unfortunately, Remington starts having confusing thoughts about his best friend Jigs.  His rather less grungy approach to clothes and grooming also attracts the wrong sort of attention in a town terrorized by a homophobic psychopath.

While always meant with the best intentions, the film’s humor is consistently broad and often decidedly politically incorrect.  Think of it as La Cage aux Folles with zombies, serial killers, curses, and a weird ray-gun (don’t ask).  Yet, it has the heart of a John Hughes movie.  Castro walks a fine line, portraying Remington’s fight against the curse as an effort to be who he was really meant to be, rather than a massive freak-out at the prospect of being gay.  To his credit, it mostly works on those terms.

Martin Escudero is game enough for all the naughty physical comedy Castro throws Remington’s way, while Philippines TV star Lauren Young is a smart and engaging screen presence as Hannah.  Together their chemistry is a bit problematic, but there is a lot of chaos going on, deliberately undermining them.

Remington is a fun, sweet-tempered film.  It would be a mistake to consider it topical though.  Frankly, the nature of the outrageous humor is likely to offend partisans on either side of the social issues divide. However, for those who want to see a midnight movie with gay zombies, it certainly fits the bill.  Recommended accordingly, Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings screens again June 1st and 2nd as part of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Mighty Fine Manic Depressive

Moving to New Orleans? Well, Laissez le bon temps rouler, unless you happen to be an awkward Jewish high school student from Brooklyn.  In that case, it might be somewhat daunting.  The Fine sisters find themselves in such a situation, but they will experience far more angst rooted their father’s erratic anger in Debbie Goodstein-Rosenfeld’s partly biographical Mighty Fine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joe Fine was a swaggering young enlisted man in WWII when he met Stella, a beautiful Jewish teenager whom a neighbor literally hid in a hole in his property during the war.  Their attraction was immediate and her devotion would be almost total.  In fact, her reluctance to stand up to Fine’s increasingly frequent explosions of anger causes resentment among her daughters.

Maddie is the older attractive one, who can adapt to any new environment fairly easily through her looks and charm.  Natalie is the younger, bookish one, who narrates the film looking back from an adult vantage point.  The fact that Janeane Garofalo supplies these voiceovers does not exactly do the character or actor Jodelle Ferland any favors, subconsciously making most of the audience less inclined to be sympathetic.

At first, the move south appears to be a good thing, but Fine’s textile business (the Mighty Fine label) is on life support.  When the federal tax credit he was banking on is tabled, the writing is on the wall.  Not surprisingly, this pushes Fine to his breaking point.  Though not yet physically abusive outright, the sisters begin to worry Fine might finally hurt one of them, or himself.

Written and produced in the spirit of forgiveness, the film never condemns Fine for his weaknesses, nor does it ever shy away from the uncomfortable reality of his tempestuous behavior.  It is an honest and sensitive film, which is commendable, but not necessarily sufficient.

While viewers feel for the Fines, all of them, their story falls into a rather predictable pattern—their father loses his cool, tries to make it up to the family with some form of extravagance, only to get worked up again.  Maybe it is rather true to life, but as cinema it gets laborious.  A fair number of motley subplots are also left dangling, such as the underworld figures Fine approaches to set an insurance fire at his factory.  Evidently, should you ever get mixed up with gangsters, if you just ignore them they will go away.  For some this will be a minor quibble, but it seems utterly bizarre Goodstein-Rosenfeld would set Mighty in New Orleans, but not employ any of the local music.  That is a real shame, because the sounds are so great and the local musicians could definitely use a gig.

Regardless of Mighty’s faults, it boasts some of executive producer Palminteri’s best work.  Completely eschewing shtick and sentimentally, it is a gutty yet uncommonly human performance.  In contrast, co-executive producer Andie MacDowell is more than a bit mannered as the ever loyal Stella.  Still, her real life daughter Rainey Qualley is a forceful, dynamic presence as Maddie.  Though somewhat mousy by design, Ferland’s Natalie is quite engaging, as well.

Mighty Fine could not possibly be more earnest.  Its design team also has a good eye for period details and overall ambiance.  Still, a bit of tension breaking levity and some funky NOLA tunes would not have undermined the central drama.  Respectable but wearying, Mighty Fine opens this Friday (5/25) in New York at the AMC Empire and AMC Village.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wes Anderson’s Cannes Opener Moonrise Kingdom

Two twelve year-old runaways would like to remake the generic sounding Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet into a New England version of the Blue Lagoon, but they aim to maintain the cultural trappings of 1965 middle class America, as they relate to it, in the process.  Unfortunately, the adult world keeps intruding on their private moments in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (trailer here), the opening night film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which bows theatrically in New York this Friday.

Sam Shakusky is a terrible Khaki Scout.  Actually, his skills are not that bad, but he does not fit in socially with Scout Master Ward’s troupe.  Unbeknownst to Ward, Shakusky is an orphan, about to get the heave-ho from his foster family.  However, the sensitive scout has successfully wooed Suzy Bishop, the eldest child of two self-absorbed yet profoundly unhappy attorneys. 

When Shakusky fails to appear at revile one fateful morning, it sets off a manhunt throughout New Penzance Island, taxing the meager resources of Captain Sharp, Mrs. Bishop’s recently dumped lover.  Chastely dedicated to each other, the two fugitives would like to permanently retreat from reality at the prosaically named inlet they duly redub “Moonrise Kingdom.” Instead, they will repeat a cycle of chase, apprehension, and escape, as a historic storm approaches New Penzance, as it always happens in an island-bound story.

It takes about ten seconds for Moonrise Kingdom to announce itself as a Wes Anderson film, through his constantly panning camera and the richly detailed vintage sets.  Indeed, the attention to detail extends down to the covers of the chapter-books Bishop reads aloud to Shakusky.  Yet, rather than detracting from his fable-like story, Anderson’s signature style is perfectly suited to the innocence of young love.  Focusing on young POV characters is actually quite a shrewd strategy on his part, giving him the license to incorporate all kinds of nostalgic eccentricity (nod to Norman Rockwell? Check.) while staying faithful to their precocious worldview.  Frankly, this is the sort of film a visual stylist like Tim Burton ought to be making, instead of aimless tent-poles, like Dark Shadows.

As Mr. Bishop, Anderson mainstay Bill Murray once again plays a middle-aged depressive with deep-seated relationship woes.  Fellow alumnus Jason Schwartzman is also back for more, getting some of Moonrise’s best comedy scenes as Cousin Ben, a slick operating senior Khaki Scout.  Indeed, the film boasts several notably colorful supporting turns, including Bruce Willis, acting his age and playing against his action hero persona as the put upon Captain Sharp.  Tilda Swinton also absolutely plays to the hilt the personification of bureaucracy known simply as “Social Services,” while the mere sight of Bob Balban’s “Narrator” in his bright crimson wardrobe generates laughter.  Still, the dramatic load largely falls on the young newcomers, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who are quite emotionally engaging leads, playing their scenes together scrupulously straight.

Essentially, Moonrise is a children’s movie for adults.  Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives it all a sensitive period sheen, while the soundtrack (dominated more by the unlikely combination of Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams recordings than Alexandre Desplat’s original themes) effectively underscores the wistful vibe.  Altogether, it is very Wes Anderson, but its gentle, humane spirit is quite winning.  Recommended surprisingly highly (well beyond Anderson’s established circle of admirers), Moonrise opens this Friday (5/25) in New York at the AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square.

The Original Hunger Games: Battle Royale

Do you remember when The Hunger Games was in Japanese?  At that time, it was a manga and film franchise called Battle Royale and it is still way cooler that way.  Though Tora! Tora! Tora! co-director Kinji Fukasaku’s notoriously violent adaptation was released in 2000 (eight years prior to the publication of a certain YA potboiler), it never had a proper American theatrical release, until now.  Middle School Class 3-B will go for the dystopian jugular again when Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (trailer here) opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

In protest of their limited future prospects, eighty-thousand Japanese students boycotted classes.  In retribution, the Battle Royale Act (BR) was passed.  Unfortunately, Class 3-B was not paying attention.  During their graduation trip, Noriko Nakagawa and Shuya Nanahara (whose names evidently translate into English as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) are more concerned with the halting stirrings of their long pined for romance.  However, their former teacher Kitano has different plans for the class.

Waking up from a dose of knock-out gas, Class 3-B discovers themselves on a remote island with tracking collars affixed to their necks.  Kitano, who appears to have some sort of X-Filish super-governmental authority, explains they will all explode in three days if they do not play the there-can-be-only-one game.  Each student is randomly allotted a different weapon and turned loose in the woods.  Further complicating matters, two “transfer students” are also in on the game: the sadistic Kazuo Kiriyama and past champion Shogo Kawada, who has his own mysterious reasons for returning.  Nanahara vows to protect Nakagawa, but given the nature of the BR, it is not clear whether he ultimately can.

Frankly, it is a bit mystifying how the BR would act as an instrument of social control rather than stoking widespread unrest, but no matter.  More than most subsequent films it influenced, Battle really takes an uncomfortably hard look at human nature.  As a result of the school’s typically arbitrary social structure, resentful outsiders like Mitsuko Souma (played with unusual nuance by j-pop vocalist Kou Shibasaki in a star-making turn) readily embrace the game.  Yet far more refuse to play, either committing suicide in pairs or searching for a long shot escape option.  Despite its obvious existential angst, the film adaptation of Battle (penned by Fukasaku’s son Kenta) is never nihilistic, which is quite the trick to pull off.

Hunger Games defenders should ask themselves who is more hardcore, Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow or “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as his stone cold namesake.  Before giving a kneejerk answer, check out the latter’s latest masterful Yakuza comic-tragedy, Outrage.  In a way, Fujasaku employs Kitano’s well established deceptively placid persona as a bit of shorthand, but the action star definitely delivers the ruthless goods for his legions of international fans.  Battle is also further distinguished by the running body count it maintains for the benefit of players and viewers alike.

To recap, Battle is more violent and sociological trenchant than its imitators, featuring cult-film all-stars, like Kitano and Chiaki Kuriyama (best known as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, vol. 1).  Recommended for all fans of violent dystopian speculative fiction, it begins its premiere American theatrical run this Friday (5/25) at the IFC Center, where it should find a large and appreciative audience to judge by the unexpected success of Ôbayashi’s truly insane House found there.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SIFF ’12: The Last Christeros

One of the Twentieth Century’s bloodiest assaults on religious freedom happened in the western hemisphere.  It was perpetrated by “revolutionary” socialist president Plutarco Calles, whose iron-fisted anti-clerical policies inspired a real grassroots revolution.  By the 1930’s an uneasy and imperfect peace had been brokered, but scattered bands of Cristero resistance fighters held out as best they could.  One of the final squads grapples with their destiny in Matías Meyer’s The Last Christeros (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival.

Mexico is still a land of wide vistas John Ford could love, but it is steadily closing in on the Cristero remnants.  Pursued by a company of Federales, Col. Florencio Estrada’s troops are running low on everything, including bullets.  Word reaches them of an amnesty, which some of the men are willing to consider.  However, Estrada has been down that road before.  Calles had violated the terms of truces before and the period of his unelected “Maximato” was still underway.  Though he misses his wife and daughters, Estrada has long since realized he will meet his end through this war, one way or another.

To establish the stakes of the Cristero revolution, Meyer opens the film with the 1969 oral history recording of Francisco Campos, who very well may have been the last Cristero.   However, that is about as deeply as the film delves into the political, historical, and religious significance of the civil war.  Instead, Last Christeros (for some reason, the international title carries the Anglicized “h,” while most references to the Cristeros maintain the original spelling) is an impressionistic depiction of the trying conditions endured by the weary freedom fighters.  Theirs is not an existential life though.  Rather, they live for a purpose.

Though the ensemble consists largely of neophyte actors, they all look convincingly gaunt and weathered.  Alejandro Limon is particularly haunting as the dedicated (and/or resigned to his fate) Estrada.  Yet, the picture’s defining work is that of cinematographer Gerardo Barroso, who creates painterly-like tableau of the rugged terrain and hardscrabble villages the Cristeros silently trudge through.  Galo Duran’s evocative soundtrack also helps set an appropriately wistful mood.

For those thinking the Cristero revolt would also readily lend itself to a more traditional historical drama take heart—Andy Garcia rides into theaters with For Greater Glory on June 8th.  This mini-boomlet of interest in the Cristeros is actually quite timely.  It reminds us of the price many have paid for liberty, in an election year.  If not exactly a work of advocacy cinema, Meyer certainly respects the Cristeros’ sacrifices.  Recommended for open minded cineastes, The Last Christeros screens tomorrow (5/21), Wednesday (5/23), and the Wednesday following (5/30) as part of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Elusive Justice: Comrade Duch

Somewhat fittingly, the English translation of Tuol Sleng is “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.”  During the reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or the Khmer Rouge as they were subsequently known, the Tuol Sleng prison was a true charnel house, ostensibly charged with enforcing ideological purity.  Kaing Guek Eav, the man dubbed “Comrade Duch,” oversaw the wholesale torture and mass executions perpetrated there with the ferocity of a zealot.  Years later, Duch became the first Khmer Rouge official to stand trial for crimes against humanity.  Adrain Maben documents the historic trial and the complicated circumstances surrounding it in Comrade Duch: The Bookkeeper of Death (promo here), which airs tomorrow as part of the current season of Global Voices on PBS World.

Duch was a butcher, plain and simple.  However, he represented himself as a much different person in 2007 than he was in the late 1970’s.  A convert to Evangelical Christianity, Duch initially surprised the world by acknowledging personal culpability for the crimes he committed and asking for the forgiveness of victims and their families.  Indeed, it seemed to confuse the issues for the tribunal, which eventually sentenced Duch to what most of the country considered a scandalously lenient sentence.

Trying a nearly seventy year old man for crimes that were committed decades ago but still remain a source of acute and widespread pain throughout the country will always be a tricky proposition.  Problematic as it might have been, Duch’s trial was only possible thanks to the gumshoe work of investigative photojournalist Nic Dunlop (who contributed so many images to HBO2’s Burma Soldier has was officially credited as a co-director).  Haunted by the archival photos of soon to be executed Tuol Sleng prisoners, Dunlop scoured the remote corners of Southeast Asia for the notorious ideologue responsible.

While the trial is presented rather straightforwardly and dispassionately, there are several heavy moments in Bookkeeper.  In one telling scene, Duch earnestly tells his interviewer his only fundamental mistake was serving Communism rather than Christianity.  It is hard to imagine a more Eric Hoffer-esque moment, yet there is no question the world would have been a better place had his allegiances been altered accordingly.  It is also a little unnerving to take into account Duch was the product of his leftist school teacher’s classroom indoctrination.

Arguably, Bookkeeper illustrates the power of the photographic image more forcefully than any recent film expressly documenting the medium.  Profoundly saddening but respectful and informative, it is one of this weekend’s television highlights when it airs tomorrow (5/20) on PBS World.